Panthers' success built on dedication to defence

A partially filled Suncorp Stadium watches on as the Panthers and Storm warm up in temperatures hovering around the low 30's. The Provan Summons trophy sits on a promotional plinth, resting smack bang on the halfway sideline.

Jarome Luai practices spiralling high kicks from the 40 metre line, and Nathan Cleary calmly drills four straight drop goals from the same distance. At the other end, Christian Welch is all smiles as he leads the Storm forwards in wrestling drills, while Cameron Munster bounces around like a child nearing the front of the queue for his favourite rollercoaster.

Melbourne are looking confident, Penrith disciplined. Commentators on the TV, radio and in the press box, largely convinced this one is the Storm's to lose. Demanding a near perfect performance for any side daring to challenge them, the quality of their own performance wasn't in question.

Game on. Welch's maiden charge is met by a storm of pink, and soon after the prop's head collides heavily with the headgear of Matt Burton. He stays on, and a Storm error gifts Penrith some early attack. Cleary pitches a cross field kick into the waiting arms of Stephen Crichton in the right hand corner. A quick check, on account of a back play push and shove between Welch and promoted starter Tevita Pangai Junior. No problems identified, and the Panthers are away.

A warning shot fired to Melbourne's heavily compressed defensive line, and a sideline conversion from Cleary. A quick glance at the clock reveals just under 4 minutes have elapsed.

Advantage Panthers, sluggish start from the Storm. Surely just a blip.

Play resumes, and Pangai Junior takes issue with Welch in back play. The former Bronco is apparently miffed his opponent is targeting Cleary post kick. A tactic that was never in any doubt, but Penrith are in no mood. Ivan Cleary's had no luck addressing the issue, so perhaps it's the players' turn.

Munster attempts a cross field kick for a flying Josh Addo-Carr, the attempt lacking the precision of Cleary's effort. Soon after, George Jennings drops the ball with the line wide open. Execution is lacking, and Craig Bellamy loses it in the coaches' box. Welch's afternoon ends with the intervention of an independent doctor. Something's not quite right with Melbourne. They're under real pressure, before a Brandon Smith 20-40- the first of the season- restores some calm. Then Smith is down and clutching his shoulder. Tough as this guy is, he's clearly hurting. Cut to an expressionless Bellamy in the coaches' box.

More pushes and shoves erupt in a 15th minute scrum. Dale Finucace winding back the clock and actually raking for the ball off a Penrith feed. The Panthers forwards taking exception, and lashing out at Ryan Papenhuyzen. Referee Gerard Sutton intervenes. Smith succumbs to his injury, Harry Grant enters the fray.

Time for a breath. Only a short one, because the Panthers are on the attack again. Viliame Kikau is charging down the left edge before finding Luai. They're on the other side of the field on the very next tackle. The term "expansive" doesn't do it justice.

Melbourne are rattled; and if you don't believe it, just ask Jahrome Hughes, who's just put one out on the full from inside his 30. Nearly midway through the first half and this contest has gone well off the expected script.

Cleary's kicking game is artful, and Penrith have everything to show for their early dominance but more points. Melbourne's defence is holding up, in the face of persistent errors. A Brian To'o grubber goes dead and the Storm forwards go to their haunches. They're out on their feet, but it remains 6-0. Then confirmation comes through- Welch has failed his HIA.

Cleary executes a lifting tackle on Kenny Bromwich and finds himself on report. Cue a key storyline for grand final week, later extinguished by the lack of a formal charge.

Penrith's wall appears breached when Nelson Asofa-Solomona dives over next to the posts. Somehow the Storm have found a way through, but Dale Finucane's been busted running an obstruction, and we have no try. Cut to Bellamy in the coaches' box.

Melbourne are desperate to complete some sets and get into their beloved grind. Nathan Cleary drops one, and suddenly it's time for a sustained period of Melbourne attack.

A desperate try-saver from Capewell and Crichton stops Justin Olam from crossing. Hughes is pulled up just short. Munster's not taking the right options, nor is Grant. A fifth error gifts the ball back to the mountain men. The pink wall holds firm.

Half an hour in and Olam makes another charge for the line. Penrith repel, and seconds later Luai is slicing through the midfield. He's collected by a stray Munster arm on the way down. Deemed accidental, and Munster remains on the field, while Luai is assisted off. He looks shaky on the sideline.

Melbourne chalk up their eighth error as news comes through- Brandon Smith won't be returning. Another Storm opportunity goes begging on the right edge soon after as Reimis Smith drops it in sight of the line. Both sides are tired. Despite its scrappiness, the game has moved from end to end at a draining pace.

The siren sounds, and the 29,011 patrons inside Suncorp Stadium draw a much needed breath. It's 6-0. Melbourne and Penrith are dishing up completion rates well below their usual pedigree, at 64 and 71 percent respectively. The coach most enjoying such a scrappy and brutal encounter must surely be Wayne Bennett.

Returning for the second half, Olam coughs it up almost immediately. Luai's back on the field, and finds space on the left edge. He sends To'o over. Cleary endures a rare miss from the sidelines and it's 10-0. Penrith blast back all the pressure they'd absorbed before the break. Shouldn't they be wearing purple?

The roar of a military jet flying over in preparation for the evening's 'Riverfire' celebrations in Brisbane City is a far less intimidating prospect than Craig Bellamy in the coaches' box. With half an hour left the question circulates; are the grinders being ground down?

Kenny Bromwich cops a tag near the eye from Crichton, but stays on the field. Cleary kicks it out on the full. Melbourne again fail to punish the mistake. They're scoreless with just over 24 minutes remaining. They've saved their sloppiest performance of the year for the preliminary final, and amid the deafening sound of crowd and overhead military aircraft, the clock is drying up.

Hughes breaks through again in the 63rd minute, twisting his knee in the effort to spring up for a quick play the ball. Less than a minute later, Grant switches to Munster, who kicks for Papenhuyzen. The purple clad faithful in the grandstand erupt, as do the flamethrowers at the dead ball line. It's 10-6 with just over 15 minutes left.

More defence helicopters whir by in the 68th minute, as the Storm's line speed grows ever more sluggish. It's hot and they've defended a lot. Surely this is Penrith's to lose.

Three minutes left and the exhausted Panthers concede a penalty on halfway. Munster throws his hands in the air on the last tackle, as Grant opts to go the other way. Penrith defuses the kick, and there's no way through.

The clock runs out, Addo-Carr tries to launch a kick, Luai collects it. Jubilation on the Penrith bench. Kurt Capewell is hobbled, after a game high 51 tackles. Cleary salutes the faithful. An all Sydney grand final is set to unfold outside of Sydney for the first time in competition history. For the Storm, 16 errors and a lack of impact from Munster prove terminal. Dale Finucane, Nicho Hynes and Josh Addo-Carr sign-off, earning praise from a proud but mostly perplexed coach.

"It's hard to take," Bellamy tells journalists post match.

"I didn't see that performance coming. We defended well, the opposition scored two tries and we lost two key players out of the ruck. It was just really disappointing; I can't think of another word."

Have the Panthers got another bout in them after back to back-to-back epics? Sneaking past the Eels and toppling the Storm, on the back of succumbing to a Rabbitohs side now waiting on Grand Final day. The defensive resolve they displayed in week 3 will surely have captured Bennett's attention, just as the effort it demanded won't have escaped it.

"I think I'm more tired than the players," says Ivan Cleary post match. "We're even more battle-hardened now, but I guess we'll find out next week how much juice that takes out of you."

"A couple of years ago we sat down, we really wanted to make this team and this club a top four team and a genuine premiership threat. You can't do that without defence. It's been the foundation of what we do."